Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

Six
Manners and the Many Histories of Everyday Life:
Custom, Commerce, Women, and Literature

IT WOULD be hard to find a phrase in eighteenth-century letters more characteristic than “manners and customs.” Almost every discipline of thought or body of literature found a use for this flexible vocabulary, but for the historical genres in particular “manners” have a special interest. Imprecise though its usage was, the term pointed unmistakably to the domains of experience excluded by traditional concepts of historical narrative. Thus manners was immediately recognizable as the brief signature of the new concern with the social that set the interests of this period apart from those of its classical and Renaissance predecessors.

Concern for manners was a key place where a variety of moral discourses— classical republicanism, Addisonian politeness, sentimentalism—intersected with a number of philosophical or learned ones. Thus the idea of manners and its various extensions served as a common currency linking the themes of law, history, or ethnographic travel with other, more overtly moral languages of the times. In Addisonian moralists, for example, preoccupation with manners took the form of the idea of “politeness,” a genial program of sociability and reform.1 A darker view of the times was preached by John Brown in his popular jeremiad on contemporary effeminacy and corruption, the Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757). Others were less apocalyptic, but when Britons thought about the future of their commercial empire, few could avoid entirely thoughts of imperial Rome, corrupted and effeminated by power and luxury.2

In relation to manners, ideas of wealth and gender took on strikingly similar burdens. Women, like commerce, were principal agents in polishing and softening social life, and the progress of women, like the advancement of trade, was regarded as either an index of refinement or an incitement to luxury. On

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1
On politeness, see Lawrence Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994).
2
On the theme of luxury and corruption, see John Sekora, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977). For a wider economic framework, see Istvan Hont, “ ‘The Rich Country–Poor Country’ Debate in Scottish Classical Political Economy,” in Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Hont and Michael Ignatieff (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983).

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